Why haven’t the Liberal Democrats broken through and what is necessary for them to do so?

This post originally appeared in 2011. I’m republishing it now as it is rather relevant to the current debates over Liberal Democrat strategy.

I recently answered a few questions for a student at Goldsmiths College writing a dissertation on the theme, “Why haven’t the Liberal Democrats broken through and what is necessary for them to do so?”. As it was a good set of questions, and my answers might also be of wider interest, here they are:

1. Is the short to medium term objective of the party to govern alone or to become what John Curtice describes as a “hinge party” or kingmaker of coalitions and why?

Nominally the party’s strategy officially has been to move from being the third largest party to being the second largest and then in due course to being the largest. That is usually couched in the more immediate form of “replacing party X” where X is whichever of the Conservatives and Labour are least popular at the time.

However I say “nominally” because although such strategies have been technically agreed by the party’s various internal mechanisms, they usually have been the subject of very little debate. Therefore if, for example, the party were to be the kingmaker over a couple of Parliaments those past decisions aren’t a useful guide to whether or not the party would be collectively happy with that.

What has caused more debate is the question of whether getting credibility from being in government is an important step in that process – hence the debates over both the 1970s Lib/Lab pact and the current coalition government. I think people’s views on that will be heavily shaped by the 2015 election result.

2. Whilst the electoral system remains a clear and obvious barrier to a breakthrough, what other barriers are important to make governing alone a realistic long term objective?

I would identify four main factors:

a. As the question says, the first past the post electoral system, with the impetus it gives to two-party politics.
b. The structure of political and Parliamentary systems which, reflecting the electoral system, are designed for two-party systems – such as the way debates in Parliament are structured and the conventions on rapid formation of governments after election polling days.
c. Habitual voting patterns passed on within families from one generation to another, so that the Liberal Party collapse in the early twentieth century casts a very long political shadow.
d. The heavy dominance of Labour and Conservative political support amongst national printed media outlets.

3. How has being in government for the first time in generations affected the progress towards the ultimate objective of governing alone?

Only one year in to coalition government is too soon to make sensible judgements about long term trends but the likely key factors from this Parliament overall will be whether or not being in government ends up having a significant impact on the “we won’t vote for you as you never win” type reasons many people have previously given.

4. Party dealignment has been an increasing trend in recent decades, how do you think the Liberal Democrats entering government will affect that trend?

The longer terms trends that have been increasing party dealignment, particularly the changes in society and in attitudes towards formal political party organisations, are unlikely to be much changed by the Lib Dems being in government. Even with the boost in party membership Labour received last year, party membership levels are still, for example, at historically very low levels.

Moreover, part of the coalition program is about introducing political reforms which will further shake-up traditional party alignments, such as PR for the House of Lords and changes to party funding.

5. In relation to question four, is it therefore still important to try and establish a loyal and/or tribal Liberal vote or is it better to focus on the “floating voter”?

Both are necessary.

6. Political marketing (ie the marketisation of the electorate as consumers, policies as products and parties as brands etc) is said to be on the increase. Is a consumer/voter-led policy agenda a positive and/or effective way of achieving office or should parties seek to “lead” by persuading the electorate with a rigid set of beliefs?

Effective political leadership requires both approaches – an understanding of what matters to voters and a skill in channelling those concerns in ways that promote the party’s underlying beliefs. The Labour Party in its worst 1980s and New Labour phases showed the problems of both extremes – ignoring what voters thought in the worst of the ‘80s and overlooking what Labour believed in the worst of the New Labour times.

With increasing diversity in society, an increasing range of different messages targeted at people based on what particularly concerns them makes sense, but there needs to be a common set of values across the different communications.

Best of luck with the dissertation, Bobby Dean.

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